LONDON, ONTARIO – About every ten years I like to bring out a collection of greatest hits; a gathering together of the best of the last decade’s essays and feature articles and interviews. And as my last such compendium, No Continuing City, started to burn its way up the bestseller lists in December of 2010, I am once again involved in that curatorial process of appraising, winnowing and tweaking as we speak. From this vantage point of early November, I would say it’s unlikely that the book will make its appearance in what’s left of this calendar year. And that’s quite all right with me.
Before submitting the work to a publisher, one needs to get the organization and flow of the material just right and then you have to proof each article until it crackles. And even though I’m juggling a few different possibilities already (including Mr. Durer’s sublime and royalty-free Rhinoceros pictured above) I think you’d have to say that I’m still searching out the right cover image that will suitably represent the spirit of the work contained inside. Such nitpicky tasks take the time that they take and a rush job for the sake of meeting some not really ironclad deadline is likely to result in blemishes and infelicities slipping through that will then be regretted at leisure.
And there’s another reason for dragging my heels a little in bringing this little rhinoceros to market. Call me superstitious but 2020 has been such a barbed-wire hula-hoop of a year, I’d just as soon not have any document of mine out there that presents those four digits to posterity on the title page like some sort of satanic imprimatur. The quota of this year's misery would have been quite bountiful enough, thank you very much, if we’d only had to contend with the Chinese Batflu pandemic and the economy-decimating shutdowns that it triggered all around the globe.
But no sooner did that disaster seem to be tapering off in late May and early June than the democracies of the West – led as ever by the United States of America – succumbed to a sudden-onset softening of the brain in which a substantial portion of their populations were hectored by malignant agents of disquiet into believing that they lived in the very wickedest countries on the planet and needed to atone for their sins against humanity by denouncing their history and heritage. In the States, of course, this madness has gone the furthest with more than a dozen cities – all of them run by Democrats – falling prey to demonstrations that all too readily got ramped up into riots when malcontents with daddy issues who identify as oppressed got to trash and loot and burn entire neighbourhoods in the name of justice and equality.
I wonder how lasting - and how widespread - this impulse of mine to disassociate from this calendar year might be. In five or ten years’ time, will wine stewards have a hard time moving that dusty bottle of 2020 Riesling? “I don’t think so, thanks . . . do you have anything that was put up last Wednesday? I’d feel a lot safer drinking that.” When Daylight Savings Time ended on Hallowe’en night, I chortled heartily at a great little meme on Instapundit saying that turning back the clock and getting an extra hour of 2020 was like – oh, joy! – unearthing a bonus track on a Yoko Ono album.
It’s funny in a grim sort of way to recall that if you bisect those four digits with a slanted line, “20/20” becomes a synonym for perfect vision. Because above all else what has made 2020 so profoundly unsettling has been its boggling inscrutability. So many distorting political assertions have been injected into every facet of our public and private lives, that it's impossible for anyone of good faith to discern the logic, the fairness or the justice in what is actually taking place. On particularly bad days, it has seemed like everywhere we turn, we are being toyed with by delusional sadists who do not have our best interests at heart.
I'm sure you don’t need me to remind you that an American presidential election takes place tomorrow. We’ve all been tensing up with its steady approach for the better part of a year. The only thing one can predict about it with any sense of certainty is that its outcome – when and if those final mail-in ballots are "harvested" and tallied – will not settle the dangerously pitched divisions that currently cleave the most powerful and influential country on the planet. Indeed, if a certain Donald Trump should win a second mandate by a sizable majority, the lawless chaos that has rocked Democrat-run cities for the last six months is certain to slip into an even more destructive gear.
But it cannot continue indefinitely because this level of mayhem is incompatible with any sort of functioning civic life. Either some kind of traditional order will be restored or a new kind of control will be imposed. A critically important battle is underway in the States and is about to reach its climax, It is an awful spectacle to behold and complacently smug Canadians might be tempted to avert their gaze and mutter condescendingly about "those crass Americans and their garish, headstrong ways." But here's the thing. Our country is also being assailed by the same dark ideological forces that seek to replace our deepest understanding of who we are with something much less amenable to individual human freedom and flourishing. We simply lack the spine to acknowledge it and confront it and have that battle out in the open.
It's been a little uncanny how frequently in this blighted and bad-tempered year, phrases and snatches from W.B. Yeats' most famous poem, The Second Coming, have drifted unbidden into my mind. You all remember how it goes; or at least the first verse:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I decided to do a little digging around into what was going on in Yeats' life a hundred and one years ago when that poem first appeared and was startled to discover that, yes, the First World War had just wrapped up, leaving most people shattered and heartsick at how readily one country after another had been swept up into this most destructive and least justifiable of conflicts. But here's what I didn't know.. One significant factor in bringing that war to its overdue conclusion was the Spanish Flu pandemic, then roaring away at a death-dealing peak that makes Covid-19 look like a global case of the sniffles in comparison. The mortality rate for pregnant women during the height of that plague was seventy per cent and Yeats' pregnant wife had just made it through by the skin of her teeth around the time he took up his pen to write this poem.
So it would appear that there's something about global contagion - or, as I think we're seeing now, the prospect of the same hysterically ginned up - that really does un-moor the human mind and send it reeling into apocalyptic overdrive. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a title for my forthcoming book. It’s those two words at the head of this column – In Particular. By affixing that title to a collection of commentaries on subjects that I hope I understand well and deal with fairly, I am hoping to do my small bit to push back against the grotesque exaggerations and demonizations that have made 2020 such an ordeal.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :